Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sleeper Cell

It is a war of attrition.

Novel after successful novel has the bad guy infiltrate the bureaucracy years in advance, working along and seemingly part of the organization.  Security worker, inspector, dock hand, postal carrier, whatever - he fits in with the guys, but seems a little standoffish.  And then, one day, he receives a call, and takes the action that makes something cataclysmic happen.  The act invariably happens at the beginning.

Then the writer introduces the hero, who spends the rest of the novel trying to undermine or undo the effort that was begun by the security worker/inspector at the moment of betrayal.

Part of the reason that the fear of such a thing is so real is that the minions - those of us working in the bureaucracy - crave relevance more than anything.  We want the effort we put in to be worthwhile.  And what we see is that the antihero, if he bides his time, and does his job, will eventually be trusted enough to take one action that will change everything.

Ghandi is reported to have said, "Be the change you want to see in the world". 

But for those who toil in the large bureaucracy, the mantra you hear repeated over and over again is, do your job, keep your head down, and you will be rewarded with promotions.

And then (and only then) you can make a difference.

Immediately upon graduation from college, I was casting around for employment.  One of the programs that was available was within the Social Security Administration - they took recent grads, and paid decent money to attract bright young minds into Federal service. I looked at the salary, which was a considerable bump from what I was making as a clerk on the lumber yard, and filled out the form.

Dad saw me with the form, and casually asked what it was.  I talked it through with him, and Mac Lawton, one of the most keen observers of personality that I have ever met, said,

"I am not sure that is a good fit."

He went on to say that what  he had observed in me was a keen, inquisitive mind, that bored easily and liked to find alternative ways of doing things. 

"The large government bureaucracy has their way of doing things.  They do not reward innovation or creative, outside-the-box thinking, or even efficiency."  His eyebrows raised.  "You are certainly more than capable of doing the work, but I can see you burning out very quickly from the process."

I finished the application.  But never sent it in. Because Dad was right.

Fast forward 33-1/3 years.  I have now been in Federal service for eight years, starting my career shortly after Katrina.  And Dad's analysis has been proven 100% correct.  I do struggle with doing things the way they have always been done.  Tried and true.  Use the template.  Fill out the form.  Rinse, repeat as needed.

I see a LOT of things that could be run more efficiently.  I see inane things going on that I have no authority to change. The people who are most like me find themselves against this wall and find an escape.

I have stayed.

What is required, then, is for me to keep in mind the burning desire to make changes, to see with fresh, unjaded eyes, to kindle the passion that made me good at the job to begin with.  To get that far, I have to stuff all of those wonderful things into a deep, dark corner of my soul, only to be released when I am in a position to make that difference.  By becoming a company man, by being a sycophant, by nodding, agreeing to, and pushing for all of the things that are currently being done, in the way they are currently being done, I can be promoted to the point where I can make a difference.

But it is a war of attrition.  If I successfully hide that part of me that questions the traditional method of doing things, and I agree to do everything according to 'the book', how do I suffuse that part of me with life again when I am asked to rewrite the book? 

How do I protect myself?

How do I act as a subversive?

How do I act in such a way that denies who I am, with the goal of achieving the greater good?

And how in the world does ANYONE have that level of self-abegnation that will allow them to do that?

If you are looking for me, I will be the one in the burrocrazy, nodding, drinking the Kool-Aid, and smiling.

All the while, hiding a burning (patriotic) desire to change the process in my heart.

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